Downton Abbey, ITV1
It wouldn’t be Downton Abbey if early on we didn’t have the customary time-passes-really-rather-quickly-in-this-programme dialogue.
‘It’s a changing world,’ laments Molesley Sr.
‘You don’t have to tell me that,’ replies Violet, pensively. (But Julian Fellowes clearly felt we needed reminding.)
Because in case you hadn’t picked up on it from the endless pre-series promotion and considerable abundance of finger waves, the inhabitants of Downton Abbey now find themselves in the Roaring Twenties. All except Mary (Michelle Dockery), apparently, who spends her time gazing desolately out of windows and occasionally descending the staircase like a beautiful version of Miss Havisham carved from alabaster. The reason being, of course, the untimely death of her husband Matthew. Dockery plays the part of a walking talking ice block throughout most of this 90 minute episode, not even thawing when cradling her tiny son, George, in her lily-white arms.
There’s a lot of talk of George: ‘What about George?’ ‘I’m interested in George.’ This is because George is very important. George is The Heir. And we’re reminded of this fact a lot. After a while, I found it more entertaining to imagine that everyone was actually talking about Prince George. It turned the Granthams from landowners preoccupied with inheritance to Hello-reading monarchists.
Branson (Allen Leech) wants Mary involved in the management of Downton, but Robert (Hugh Bonneville) wants to keep her ‘safe’; wrapped up like a piece of fine china. Nevertheless, intervention from the indomitable Violet (Maggie Smith), and a pep talk from Carson (Jim Carter) mean that by the end of the episode Mary has swapped black for lilac and is holding court amongst a dozen farmers. Well, she was never one to listen to her father. I sincerely hope that the rest of the series will centre around this new Power Mary as she storms round the estate in a sharp suit and killer heels, juggling her career in estate management with being a mum to baby George – sort of like a 1920s Sheryl Sandberg. (Possibly with a thriving carpentry business on the side, should she decide to act on Branson’s recommendation…)
What of the other characters? Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is as gloriously bitchy as ever, looking for a replacement nemesis after O’Brien’s surprise departure. His new target, Nanny West (Di Botcher), doesn’t last long, though. She departs in what is arguably the most dramatic scene in an otherwise sluggish episode, paving the way for yet more scheming.
Meanwhile, Edith’s editor beau (Charles Edwards, who looks disconcertingly like a younger version of runaway bridegroom Anthony Strallen) is trying to persuade her to go abroad with him so that he can divorce his mad wife and marry her instead. However, his proposed destination is interwar Germany, which I imagine isn’t the most romantic of places. We also saw the return of Edna Braithwaite (the shady maid who tried to hit on Branson last Christmas, played by MyAnna Buring), and there was cautionary tale about excessive alcohol consumption: very apt as Freshers Week sweeps the country.
Judging by this episode alone – in which the introduction of an electric whisk was a major source of drama – Downton doesn’t look set to emerge from the rut it found itself in during last series. The preview for next week looked a bit more promising in the scandal stakes. Nevertheless, if we’re going to return to series one standards then we need about 500% more illicit affairs, 200% more backstabbing and a lot more screen time from Violet.